BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq drew up amendments on Tuesday that it will demand of the United States in a bid to salvage an agreement allowing U.S. forces to remain beyond the end of this year.
Baghdad also issued a belated rebuke of Washington for a helicopter strike on Syria, a sign of the pressure Iraq’s government is under to reassure its neighbors that it is not letting U.S. forces use its territory against them.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will now send U.S. negotiators the proposed amendments to the security deal, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Washington and Baghdad have been scrambling to get the bilateral pact in place to provide a legal basis for the U.S. presence after a U.N. mandate ends on December 31, but it was held up last week when Baghdad said it would demand changes.
Dabbagh did not provide details of the proposed amendments. Asked if they covered just the wording of the deal, he said: “the wording, yes, and some of the content.”
But a cabinet member indicated that the proposed changes would not require the pact’s main points to be renegotiated.
“The most important changes are in those articles which could be interpreted more than one way,” Environment Minister Nermeen Othman, who attended the cabinet meeting, told Reuters. “We worked to avoid any ambiguity.”
The pact already includes a number of key concessions to Baghdad, such as a 2011 withdrawal date and a mechanism for Iraq to try U.S. troops for major crimes committed while off duty. Othman said the proposed amendments would not alter the pact’s wording on the issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops.
U.S. officials said they had not yet seen the proposed changes, but they have made clear that they are reluctant to make substantial revisions to a text hammered out over months.
“We believe that the current draft agreement is a good agreement. Both countries have worked on this current draft for many months and we believe that the current draft addresses the concerns of both,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
The future of the foreign military presence remains sharply divisive for Iraq’s political class more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite political parties have historical ties to Iran, which has long claimed that the pact would allow Washington to use Iraq as a base for attacks on its neighbors.
The strike on Syria puts that argument in a starker light. The Iraqi government did not condemn it until nearly two days after it took place, and had earlier justified it as targeting an area used as a staging ground for militant attacks on Iraq.
“The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria. The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries,” Dabbagh said on Tuesday, finally condemning Sunday’s U.S. strike.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had angrily denounced Iraq’s initial description of the strike as targeting insurgents. He said the attack killed eight civilians.
A senior Shi’ite member of parliament said the U.S. strike’s timing makes it more difficult to gather support for the pact.
“The whole strike is confusing for us. Why now, why at this time when we are negotiating the pact?” he said. “One of the red lines which neither Maliki nor any of the other political powers would allow to be crossed is the use of Iraq as a staging ground to attack other countries.”
The decision on the pact is widely seen as requiring Iraq’s ruling Shi’ites to choose between supporting their new friends in Washington and their old friends in Tehran.
If no deal is in place by the end of the year, officials could seek an extension of the current U.N. mandate, but Iraqi officials have made clear they prefer a satisfactory pact.
The United States has threatened to halt virtually all its activities in Iraq — from security patrols to logistical support for the Iraqi army to airport traffic control — if no formal legal mandate is in place come January 1.
Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; writing by Missy Ryan and Peter Graff; editing by Richard Balmforth